Good Earth

If the earth is parched and thirsty, don't blame the rains
Shaweta Anand Delhi

The scorching summer heat compels most of us to beg the raingods for mercy. For some, the rains usher in a celebrative mood, but for many others, it's time to feel vulnerable. In India, thousands of people routinely succumb to droughts that ruin crops or floods that gulp down entire villages, forests and fertile land.

"Agriculture still contributes a large chunk to our GDP even at a reduced 15.7 per cent. More than half of our population continues to depend on it, though it increasingly seems like an unviable option because of factors like insufficient relief measures during monsoon-related disasters like droughts or floods," said Dr Pramod Kumar Joshi, Director, National Academy of Agricultural Research Management, Hyderabad. 

Out of the 141 million hectares of cultivable land in India, 80 million hectares is rain-fed. That is how the livelihood of millions directly depends on the amount of rainfall every year. More than 60 per cent of the artificially irrigated land also depends on groundwater (which is replenished by the rains), not on dams or canals. In fact, contrary to popular perception, the higher productivity of the green revolution belt comprising Punjab, Haryana and western UP was facilitated by groundwater, not dam water. A special report on the monsoon by Amit Bhattacharya, a senior science journalist, recently brought these facts to light.

"Farmers have been dependent on rainfall for thousands of years, so they know well how to deal with it, and what crops to grow at what place and at which time of the year. This is part of their traditional wisdom. What is happening now is that gradually the needs of farmers are being manipulated by governments and industry together," said Anupam Mishra, a traditional water management expert, whose book, Aaj Bhi Khade Hain Talaab (Ponds are Still Around), continues to be a bestseller.

"Farmers were self-sufficient earlier but since the entry of a market-driven economy, they are being made to depend on industrial inputs as agriculture itself is being viewed as a money-making or trade-centred activity for giant industrial business houses. So, more and more farmers are being made to grow one kind of crop even if soil quality gets ruined by the over-use of chemicals and water. Dependency on the monsoon means too much risk for business interests and hence large-scale irrigation projects like dams get speedy approval," he added. 

In India, most rainfall occurs from June to September with a national average of 1,100 mm per year. But the amount of rainfall varies across regions, with parts of Rajasthan getting as little as 100 mm even as parts of Meghalaya get the highest amount of about 11,000 mm annually. Thus, logically, diverse crops should be grown, suited to local conditions like water availability, temperature, soil type etc. 

 "We are losing respect for nature's method of providing us with different types of food - foodgrains, vegetables or fruits - in different seasons. We desire to eat mangoes in winter although we know it is a summer fruit and demand oranges in summer even though we know they grow naturally in winter!" said Vimalbhai of Matu Peoples' Organisation, Uttarakhand, one of the organisations opposing the construction of big dams in Uttarakhand.

"The tendency to force our desires on nature has alienated us from it. This has ultimately fed into the marketisation of food items and adversely affected our health. A balanced, wholesome diet is being slowly replaced by the consumption of similar food-sets during most part of the year," he added.

The erosion of diversity in the foods we eat and the crops that farmers grow worries Vijay Jardhari, a farmer and activist associated with the Beej Bachao Andolan, Uttarakhand. His 'satyagrahi' activists in the Andolan have done exemplary work for decades in preserving ancient and indigenous varieties of food, vegetables, fruits, seeds, trees, even spices, in the hills. "Earlier, when traditional systems of agriculture were the mainstay, our core diet comprised millets like ragi, jowar and bajra. Though highly nutritious and drought-resistant, these slowly came to be referred to as 'gawaar ka khana' (food that 'uncivilised' villagers eat) while rice and wheat came to be seen as more desirable foodgrains - smoother to touch, tastier and more appealing to the eye. There is a bigger market for the latter, so farmers now grow more of the heavily water-dependent and chemical-inputs-intensive crops," he told Hardnews.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has on many occasions emphasised his 'Bharat Nirman' vision of rural development that aims to promote agricultural growth by bringing lakhs of hectares of land under man-made irrigation systems. A corollary to this is the promotion of more big dams for raising the quantity of water stored during the monsoons so that it can be used even during the non-monsoon months. There are many local people's movements all over the country to oppose such big dams because they are bound to ravage and destroy local ecological zones: huge areas of hills, land, forests, rivers, life and livelihood, even while forcing mass displacement of tens of thousands of people. 

Water-storage or irrigation projects have failed in a major way in the last few decades with agricultural productivity declining every year. Not only has public money been squandered in 'mega scams', even land under irrigation has been reduced instead of increasing over the years! 

This was revealed by ecologist Himanshu Thakkar's survey of documents of the Union ministry of agriculture and later through the use of RTI. Despite the high losses incurred by the water resource management system from 1991 to 2007, the current schemes continue to be inspired from the earlier failed attempts, wasting even larger sums of public money in the name of increasing agricultural productivity and blaming the monsoon for being unreliable. Thakkar works with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

"As per official data, even though the country has spent Rs 1,42,000 crore on major and medium irrigation projects in the last 15 years, there has been no increase in net irrigated land, which continues to be one of the goals of the Bharat Nirman project, even though an earlier version called the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme failed to bring more land under irrigation. On the contrary, there has been a shocking reduction of 24.4 lakh hectares in the area irrigated by big irrigation projects in this period," said Thakkar.

Drawing attention to corruption in the irrigation sector, Jardhari said, "In Chamoli region of Uttarakhand, many irrigation officials are regularly caught embezzling money, like one Ravindra Prasad, who was a minor irrigation officer. He was caught with Rs 55.5 lakh in cash hidden under his bed. Undisclosed property worth Rs 3 crore was discovered during a raid on his house by vigilance officers in 2009." Prasad was in charge of building water tanks and gools (small canals) in the area.

A senior water management official from the National Rainfed Area Authority of the government of India, requested anonymity but confirmed that state governments ordinarily show unfinished irrigation projects as completed on paper.

"There is one resource that India is not poor in and that is water," affirmed Mishra, also associated with the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi. He talks about traditional rainwater harvesting methods still being practiced in some parts of Rajasthan along with a judicious cultivation of multiple crops that use less water. "There are other water preservation and agricultural yield-enhancing methods like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) or the Madagascar Model that have been recently employed by states like Tripura and Tamil Nadu. In this method of cultivating rice, which is a major water-intensive crop grown in India, less than half the amount of water is used and even paddy yield increases by up to eight tonnes per hectare," said Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary, All India Kisan Sabha. Thakkar believes that nature-friendly methods like SRI have the potential to save enough water for irrigating six million hectares of cultivable land if this technique is applied to even half the paddy-growing areas of the country. "Why would you need dams then as irrigation is what they are primarily supposed to do but in practice don't?" questioned Thakkar.

Highlighting levels of water-wastage and mismanagement due to aggressive 'development' initiatives, food and agricultural policy expert Devinder Sharma said, "Some parts of Rajasthan have become a haven for posh golf courses, hotels and other buildings, water-guzzling sugarcane fields, a thriving marble industry etc. All these are depleting groundwater reserves like never before. For one 18-hole golf course to be used by the wealthy, potable water for 20,000 ordinary households is sacrificed. Extensive water-mining in Rajasthan is going to lead to a water-famine this season. So it is not monsoon or water scarcity but the mismanagement of water that should be blamed."

More ominous than big dams is the controversial and gigantic river-linking project, which would supposedly make water-deficit areas gain from water-surplus areas. This, experts argue, could end up displacing millions of people, and threatening riverine biodiversity, besides creating newer inter-state conflicts over sharing river water and exacerbating existing ones. 

While the debate over dams and river-linking continues, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) is facing the heat for not predicting monsoons correctly. Science writer Pallava Bagla points out that the country had to face floods in 1994 and droughts in 1987, 2002, 2004 and 2009 despite the IMD's predictions of 'normal monsoon'. 

The IMD has predicted a normal monsoon for 2010 as well.

"The department should be able to warn farmers and policymakers in time so that they can prepare themselves for the worst possible scenario. Last year, despite a near-normal prediction, the rains fell short by 22 per cent, adversely affecting paddy production and leading to food inflation," said Bagla. When this happens, poor farmers are the most badly hurt.

Explaining the relationship between a good crop yield and timely rainfall prediction, Dr DS Pai of National Climate Centre, IMD, Pune, said, "If rainfall is expected the next day, the farmer will not irrigate the crops or else the rains will flood his fields and ruin his crops. Similarly, if there is information about a dry spell ahead, he can arrange for water in good time and save the yield."

Criticising the IMD for withholding crucial weather data from the public, Thakkar said, "If, in addition to district-wise weather data, the IMD could also provide the public with block-wise data, floods in Surat in 2006, Orissa in 2008 and in the Damodar valley in 2009 could have been avoided by releasing water from the dams involved. The country repeatedly suffers from preventable loss of life and property because of inaccurate, insufficient or untimely monsoon predictions, and even when such information is available, unaccountable dam operators refuse to act on it."

Dr Shailesh Nayak, secretary, Union ministry of earth sciences, however, assured Hardnews that a 'National Mission of Monsoon' is in place to improve the monsoon prediction system.

However, a 2009 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study has confirmed an upcoming water-famine in the bread basket of India as groundwater in the entire belt is being sucked up for water-intensive agriculture and indiscriminate construction activities in the name of development.Nature has a slow but steady way of recharging natural water-storage systems. Indeed, we can possibly solve many of our water woes by respecting that. Instead of blaming the monsoon, for a change, let's try keeping pace with nature's ways.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2010

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